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Someone has robbed my people. That was my initial reaction to the “celebration of life” of a relative conducted by a celebrant in the chapel of a funeral parlour.

The celebrant did not over-promise. We were told the deceased lived on in her children and grandchildren, in personality and characteristics shared between them. She would also live on in the (selective) memories of those who knew her who were encouraged to erase from their minds the difficult times. We could keep her spirit and influence alive by thinking of her. No hope or empty and potentially destructive comfort, and no protest.

It was amazing how often “life” could be associated with someone who was clearly seen as being dead—no, worse, had ceased to have any individual personal existence. Moreover, it is potentially destructive. The burden of being responsible for keeping someone’s spirit alive is great. The deligitimisation of difficult and painful memories, the expectation these can and should be erased, is costly, and an awareness of the frailty of memory can bring guilt to the grieving.

How Have We Got To This?

How Have We Got To This?

How has death without moral seriousness, personal hope, or emotional reality become the norm, even preferred norm, for many of my people, that is, Australians of anglo-celtic descent. This is especially so in this case as the person in question was of a generation whose parents sent them to Sunday School and who had heard of resurrection as a personal hope for those who trusted Jesus. It is worth pondering since the loss of personal hope would seem both great and grievous and on the surface it is a puzzle as to why a hopeless death has been accepted without protest. From my own reflection here are some initial suggestions.

An Unchallenged Assumption

An Unchallenged Assumption

First, there has been the almost unchallenged assumption of the truth of philosophical materialism in our public discourse which has enjoyed increasing status through its association in the minds of many with science. It has become easy to believe that matter is all there is, and we are just another form of organized matter, and when we die that’s it—matter continues in a recycled form and our consciousness ceases to be.

No God, No Judgment by God

No God, No Judgment by God

Second, God, and God’s judgment, has been removed from public discussion as offensive to many, a threat to our autonomy.

No Resistance

No Resistance

Third, there was also reluctance amongst many Australians of a certain generation to engage in discussion of ideas, or to challenge ideas, if it would lead to conflict that would disturb enjoyment of the present or threaten family or social cohesion. The result is that so many live is a sea of unchallenged untruths, where all ideas are allowed equal validity.

Liberal Christian Complicity

Liberal Christian Complicity

Fourth, the liberal Christianity of the early and middle twentieth century downplayed, if not denied, resurrection and judgment, and so they were not promoted in the collective consciousness with clarity and conviction.

A Willingly Accepted Defrauding

A Willingly Accepted Defrauding

Finally in pursuit of pleasure many have been willingly defrauded, for death without moral seriousness is the price paid for wanting a life without moral seriousness, where you are free to do whatever you please because in the end what you do does not matter and has no consequence beyond the pleasure or pain it brings you in the present.

Result and Remedy

Result and Remedy

For whatever reasons, death without moral seriousness, personal hope or emotional reality has become the prospect for many, which in its rituals reinforces the lies on which it is based. Such lies need to be exposed in our preaching and countered in our own dealings with death. This means that the reality and good of judgment needs to be clearly proclaimed, just as they are clearly taught in Scripture.

The Reality of a Resurrection of All to Judgment

The Reality of a Resurrection of All to Judgment

John 5:28–29 –

Our Lord spoke of the resurrection of all, some to live and some to condemnation (John 5:28–29). Peter and Paul preached judgment as part of the gospel (Acts 10:42, 17:31). The epistles repeat that message (Romans 2:1–16, Hebrews 9:27) and we are given awesome portrayals of judgment (Matt. 25:31–46, Rev. 20:11–15). Judgment is a reality, and it is seen as a good, to be delighted in by God’s people (Rev. 11:17–18, 15:3–4, 19:1–3; Psalms 96:11–13, 98:7–9) for it is the establishment of the reign of God, the fulfilment of the vindication of his moral order already begun in the resurrection of His Son. That reign and moral order is life for the whole created order.

The Horror of a World without Judgment

The Horror of a World without Judgment

It is good that God establishes his justice and righteousness, even if it condemns us. People need to know that they will not slip away into oblivion, as they might wish to believe, but will instead stand before the throne of the just Judge who knows their hearts as well as their deeds. They need to be encouraged to see the horrors of a world without judgment.

The Disappointment of Materialism

The Disappointment of Materialism

The materialists gloss over this. In their world the same fate awaits the righteous and the unrighteous, the one who has lived sacrificially to promote the good of others and the one who has lived a consistently selfish life. The same fate awaits the persecutors and murderers—whether they be Pol Pot’s or the Islamic caliphate’s—and their victims. In their world justice is always a human activity, always imperfect, or absent, another misleading longing of wounded hearts, a value an unfeeling material universe has no interest in. In such a world revenge is the logical option, and justice only for those who can seize and retain power to exact their own. Materialism is a desperate disappointment for the powerless wronged.

Let’s Not Avert Our Eyes

Let’s Not Avert Our Eyes

Believing the gospel that proclaims judgment our funerals must be times of moral seriousness and emotional reality, as well as joy in the hope of resurrection that the gospel gives us. There has been a growing cultural conformity in seeing funerals as a celebration of life with the loss of a sense of death as the last enemy, the consequence of sin, and the sober reminder of the coming judgment. The fleeting nature of our transient lives and the vastness of the eternity entered into at death is obscured. This insistence on celebration, deliberately averting our eyes from the irreversible loss of those left behind and the horror of the darkness of death, can also invalidate the depth of grief felt by the bereaved and reinforce the assumption that all should accept death as natural (and in accepting death, get over it).

Death as Normal but Not Natural

Death as Normal but Not Natural

Death, while normal, is not natural in the sense of the way things were made to be at the beginning, and this needs to be heard. Perhaps we need to learn again how to mourn the life lost, and make thankfulness for Jesus’ death for sin which spares us from the second death and gives us the promise of His return with those who have fallen asleep in Him central in our funerals, and so find and offer real comfort for real grief, a grief memories can only freshen, not assuage.

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